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INvenTERVIEW – David Merrill





Finally, I found the time to type up my 2nd INvenTERVIEW, where I interview great friends and people, who I have met on my path at MIT and my carreer. I try to show a more personal and different point of view than usually shown in the media.

Many more shall follow! Enjoy.

INvenTERVIEW – David Merrill

(Date: May, 2008)

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David Merrill is a PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab who I collaborated with in this year’s i-teams class at MIT. His technology that needed a clear path to the market is called Siftables:

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I asked David to start telling his story from his childhood and how he might have gotten into things like Siftables and such!

As a kid I always building with building blocks (he was especially referring to Lincoln Logs, something to get for your child maybe in the near future, besides LEGO and all that or maybe some Siftables…)!”

I liked building!”,

That he really did, in High School (1992-1996) he got into programming, at least as far as the computers would allow him to go, at this time. First, he was programming on his school Texas Instruments calculator (TI)! On the calculator he made simple math programs to help his classmates, and even built a simple driving game with multiple levels. He started making a more sophisticated battleship game, which was "quite a large piece of software for a calculator!", but he got too busy with college applications to release it.

In calculus class he built a program for his TI, where adding up squares underneath a curve computed an approximation of the integral of the curve. Showing an early interest in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Merrill was eager to find out how his fellow students would use his creations. The way to distribute programs at the time was through a cable to the other students’ calculators, an early peer-to-peer file sharing technique for mobile devices!

He was off to Stanford, and created his first website in his spare time at his job at the campus library.

At that time, the question was: What are you supposed to have on your website? …Nobody knew what should have been there! Pictures of my friends, a bulletin board type system, Messages, which everyone could see, we used it to keep in touch.” – very much like today, I thought.

I asked David how Stanford supported his WWW education and he told that even back then they would have seminars in the dorm where the resident computer person would help you make a website.

I thought I was going to study physics, but I ended up studying cognitive science, because it was more interdisciplinary.”

At this time David got really interested in computer science!, “I realized with a computer I could build even better greater things than with a calculator.” Still, the most exciting part for David was when other people would use his programs and benefit from his work. Now he had a word for this interest, however: computer-human interaction became his focus!

In undergraduate computer science he asked himself the question: How can the computer better represent information to us, and how can we interact with it in the most natural manner? As time went on, the question shifted to become: How does our body interact with a computer? And how can this interaction be improved? “What interfaces could I build if my toolset included the physical world, rather than just code?” At this point David’s focus moved from code to the additional use of embedded processors and sensors.

He pursued this interest from 2001 to 2002 at CCRMA, Stanford’s computer music center, in a class about physical music controllers. In the context of making new instruments, he learned by doing how to use basic electronics and sensors.

He was building physical objects that had computational behavior…objects that allowed a person to trigger and shape digital sounds. To put it in a nutshell he was designing systems that enabled a person to control sonic outputs through different physical inputs, and that is where he met his most difficult challenge and question:

What is most intuitive? Now that we can connect any input gesture to any sound output, what should this mapping be?” He considered acoustic instruments and how they have become mature over hundreds of years, and wondered if a good instrument takes a long time to develop.

At this point in time, another event shaped David’s life dramatically :

I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but it was already November (Fall 2001) of the year that I was graduating. About half of the programs had deadlines in December and January, and I was not going to have enough time to make the December deadlines. I didn’t want to apply to only half of the interesting schools because of this deadline crunch, so, I said to myself: Why don’t I apply ONLY to my #1 choice (which at the time had a January deadline). And if I get in, I’ll go. Otherwise, I will just wait a year and apply everywhere else.”

But he got in, and by in, I mean, into the MIT Media Lab, to study physically embodied interactive systems. He worked with Ted Selker, Joe Paradiso, and Pattie Maes over his six years at the lab, and produced an impressive collection of new user interface devices, interactive installations and publications.

And it was the project Siftables that would become the focus of his Ph.D.: Ever since my time at Stanford’s computer center, I have been a bit input device geek! I probably have 25 different game pads and joysticks that I have bought from eBay over the years…..!”

He was intrigued by how devices could be made for our hands: “Hands are most creative part of our body!”

Today we still interact with graphical content using a mouse and a keyboard. David thinks differently about how we might interact with digital content: “Today, my computer has 101 buttons and allows me one fingertip to touch the digital space. Imagine yourself sitting in front of a big pile of blocks and someone tells you that you can only use one fingertip to build structures with them… How can you do anything useful/creative?”

“We should be able to reach out with our hands, to grasp and move digital content around!”

Siftables can do just that. Having collaborated with David, I believe in it myself, but he needs move quickly, because Microsoft and Apple are trying to own this market!

But David is a multi-talented inventor and is already looking beyond Siftables, thinking about nano-bots in our body, as described by Ray Kurzweil, a well-known futurist and inventor. He is interested in neural implants and Kurzweil’s idea that we might be able to live forever, as described in a recent Wired magazine article. David knows that in the future he will be engineering solutions to such "what if we could do X…" questions,My work is very applied”.

He has enjoyed recent press and feedback about his Sound of Touch project and other art installations, as well as blogosphere and news articles about Siftables.

Besides all of his technology work, Merrill has travelled the world: Ireland, England, France, Germany, Morocco, Canada, Peru, Hawaii, Spain, Portugal, and Iceland to date. All of this time abroad probably has something to do with the fact that his girlfriend is a voracious traveler”!

Being originally from California, he enjoys the West coast very much. His friend Ben Olding, a statistics Ph.D. at Harvard who is also from California, articulates the appeal of the place in a way that resonates with David: California is full of dreamers. Everyone has a scheme about what they are going to do next, some high-tech, some not. Their plan might be the next social web service, or it might be mail-order homeopathic medicine. Whatever it is, they are open to new out-there possibilities and trying to make them happen.

"There is something fresh and naïve and wonderful about California, and although I love MIT and the Boston area I am looking forward to my future out West” says David Merill, PhD Candidate at the MIT Media Lab.

Daniel Pressl’s INvenTERVIEW Question List:

1.  Complete the sentence: “I am…

excited to give people amazing new ways to interact with the digital world.

I am optimistic, a roll up the sleeves- and make things happen- kind of guy, who enjoys motivating people around me.”

2.  Complete the sentence: “I like…

languages and understanding or decoding other cultures and places and processes. I like language barriers because they are challenging.”

3.  Complete the sentence: “My heart was beating the last time,…

when I rode my bike to MIT. I need more exercise.”

4.  Complete the sentence: “Once, I would like to drink coffee with…

Mohammed Yunis, who started the Grameen Bank.”

5.  Complete the sentence: “Things that are never missing in my fridge are…

Yogurt and soy milk.”

6.  Complete the sentence: “My favorite book is…

The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker.”

7.  Complete the sentence: “The credo/moto of my life is…

We can built a solution to that.”

8.  Complete the sentence: “My last words should be…

that was great, I did everything I wanted to do.”

Thank you, David!

Previous INvenTERVIEWS:

Stephen Steiner, MIT

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4 Responses to “INvenTERVIEW – David Merrill”

  1. Simon Says:

    Can stop myself but think about bumptop [http://bumptop.com/] with logical connections instead! Lots of stuff going on on the UI side these days, lots to filter out as well, but I think that every effort to streamline our object-oriented manipulations with the more abstract constructions of our world and minds is definitely worth it.

    Nice going, David! I'd gladly hear any tip you have to share with people interested into HID studies (what course to attend, what are the top challenges of HID, etc.). Cheers!

  2. Daniel Pressl Says:

    Absolutely! Also, things like the Microsoft Surface come to mind. We have done a pretty close study on these! New things that I have found recently are described in today's blog entry (6th of August, 2008).

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